I have just finished Laurent Binet's book HHhH. It's a slim work of "fiction," divided into 257 mini-chapters, whose narrator detests fiction—as if the two brains behind The Lifespan of a Fact occupied one skull. I'm still trying to figure out the connection between Binet's intensely self-conscious and careful style—"I am a slave to my scruples," he says, frenchly—and his subject: Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's second-in-command, the so-called "Butcher of Prague," and his assassination 70 years ago this month.
Maybe the "fiction" label comes from the fact that Binet allows himself to imagine scenes, complete with dialogue and authorial touches like, "The blood rises in his cheeks." But most of these passages are followed by self-lacerating promises that he's researching the assassination, and the infinite subplots that surround it, to the point of insanity. Since his story is also about heroes—mainly, the two Czechoslovakian parachutists who took out Heydrich—it seems like a touch of fiction is necessary in order to express the author's full admiration. Those devices also help when you need a vivid little sketch of the Nazis.
Heydrich sits rigidly at his desk, his jaw muscles pulsing. Clearly, the music coming from the radio displeases him.
He calls in his guard. “What is this faggot filth we’re listening to?”
The guard, accustomed to these tirades, nevertheless takes a reflexive step backward. “I don’t know, herr Obengrupperführer. It sounds a little like Katy Perry.”
“It is impossible! I put on the Wagner station myself.”
“But sir, surely you’ve noticed that Pandora gets mixed up sometimes.”
“Do not fuck with me! If you try to indoctrinate me with this scheisse once more, I’ll rip your balls off!”
The song ends, but it is too late for the young guard.
“I’m sorry I failed you, sir.” And with that, he draws his pistol and fires it into his brain.
Heydrich, the Beast, the Butcher of Prague, the one Hitler calls "the man with the iron heart," stands over the corpse.
“Ach,” he sighs. “I guess it is pretty catchy.” Heydrich then draws his own pistol. His lips are forming the words to “Firework” as he shoots himself in the temple.
Several officers rush in and surround the two bodies. A frenzy of exploding heads ensues, much like the last scenes of Downfall.
You must excuse the preceding lapse into fiction. I just read an article in The New Republic about the musical tastes of dictators. Heydrich, like his boss, was a classical music enthusiast. How about you, Kony, what’s on your iPod? Charles Taylor, are you a mincing Broadway wannabe like Kim Jong Il? Have you guys considered easing up on death—all you ever accomplished, whichever way the guns were pointing—and giving yourself over to something, anything else?
On page 180, I find a passage that might clue us in to the connection between the book's style and subject:
Don't believe everything you're told—especially when the Nazis are telling you. They tend to be wrong in one of two ways. Either, like big fat Göring, they are guilty of wishful thinking, or—like Goebbels Trismegistus ... —they lie shamelessly for propagandist ends. And quite often they do both at the same time.
You might say that these raging fabulists authored the grandest fiction the world has ever seen. Thanks to an intricately layered work of pure fabrication, they dreamed up a happy ending in which all eleven million of Europe and the USSR's Jews would be "deported"; see chapter 160, in which Binet shows how that number breaks down. But there's nothing fictional about the chapter's last sentence: "The mission would be half accomplished."
So maybe fiction-phobia is understandable for anyone taking on this material. Still, it's much more than a necessary evil within HHhH. At the end of a nearly unreadable chapter on the razing of Lidice in reprisal for Heydrich's assassination, Binet speaks of the assassins' guilt—the thought that their work had done more harm than good. "Perhaps I am writing this book to make them understand that they are wrong." Reading Night or Maus or even Man's Search for Meaning, my overwhelming sense is how easy it must have been to surrender, bit by bit, to be realistic and hope for the best even as half the world sank. There's plenty of that dread in HHhH, but ultimately the book suggests that the bravery of individuals can turn the tide.
I just tweaked that last line: I wrote "suggests" where I had written "shows." I want to believe what I just wrote, but I don't know enough. I never will. And maybe I'm betraying a credulity that Binet would scoff at, but I do believe him.
Image: Mark A. Wilson/Wikipedia; "Bullet-scarred window of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague where the attackers on Heydrich were cornered."